Reclaiming Your Identity After Trauma
In this podcast (episode #326) and blog, I am going to talk about the relationship between complex trauma and identity, how trauma can create a distorted perception of the self, and how you can learn how to manage your trauma and redefine your identity.
One of the biggest things we can struggle with after experiencing complex trauma is our identity. I have done a podcast on the basics of identity (#288), and I recommend you listen to this after, or even before this podcast, as they build on each other. Today, however, I am going to walk you through a specific mind management technique to help you start rebuilding your identity after trauma.
But first, I want to share with you a lovely story I heard years ago: Day after day, a little boy sat on a wall watching a man chip away at a huge block of marble. Fascinated, he finally built up enough courage to ask the man why he was doing this—a task that seem to be going nowhere. The man replied, “I am chipping away at this block because inside there is an angel waiting to come out”. This man was the prodigious artist, Michelangelo, and the angel was his famous statue of David!
The traumas of life tend to build a huge block around our identities, and trying to chip away can feel like an impossibly endless and even pointless task. But, even though this is hard, and it takes time and often more than a little help, it is doable.
As you learn how to use your “wise mind”, you can direct your “messy mind” (the part of you where the trauma and its distorted effects are), and, using the neuroplasticity of your brain, you can start finding yourself again. Why is this important? The parts of your brain that help you be you have been receiving distorted energy from the toxic neural pathways built because of your traumatic experience, and have not been functioning well. Consequently, your immune system, heart, brain and telomeres are on high alert trying to restore balance to the brain and body, and you may feel this in your body as hyperarousal (panic, alarm, anxiety, franticness) or hypo-arousal (lethargy, emptiness, feeling low).
This is why, in my practice in South Africa, I would begin each session with identity work, and to this end I have developed two profiles called the gift profile and UQ, which I got my patients to do. I will be doing another podcast on these in the future, but you can also read about them in my book Think, Learn, Succeed.
When you learn how to manage your response to complex trauma using self-regulation, you can learn how to prevent traumatic experiences from taking over your identity. To this end, I recommend making deliberate and intentional mind management a lifestyle. I do this using my Neurocycle mind-management technique, which I discuss in detail in my latest book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, and app Neurocycle.
The Neurocycle is a way to harness your thinking power through mind-management that I have developed and researched over the past three decades; any task that requires thinking can use it, which means everything can, because you’re always thinking! It is a systematic, mind-driven process that pulls thoughts from the nonconscious mind, deconstructs them and reconstructs them into your new narrative, or, in this case, your new way of being.
It is important to understand that it is best if you do this over a 63-day period, as this is roughly the time it takes to reconceptualize a thought and build a new habit. (You may even need to do multiple 63-day periods depending on how complex and severe the trauma is, and how long it has been there.)
Spend 15 to 45 minutes maximum on this thought for the first 21 day cycle, then 5-7 minutes for the next 42 days (or the next two cycles of 21 days). As you do this, you may notice other thoughts with their embedded memories popping up that are related in some way—write them down so you can work on them in another 63-day cycle.
So, let’s begin:
Always start with some brain prep, such as visualizing the block surrounding you and yourself chipping away at it, or some deep breathing (I recommend breathing in for 5 counts and out for 11 counts, and repeating this technique 3 times for around 45 seconds).
Step 1 – Gather Awareness of the distorted beliefs you hold about yourself. These often hide behind the warning signals of panic attacks, hovering anxiety, anger, irritability, obsessions, emotional numbing, detachment, depression, shame or guilt. Try to look “behind the curtain” to find the attached message that these emotional and physical warning signals are trying to convey, in order to understand the distorted “who you are” contributing to a belief or set of beliefs you hold about yourself.
Step 2 – Reflect on the fact that this is not who you are. Recognize that these beliefs are coming from a place of trauma—these are distorted toxic messages that you have heard about “who you are.” Next, try to identify what the “who you are” statements are, including who, when and where they came from. This will help you start facing the event, the experience and the effect of the trauma.
Step 3 – Write what you have gathered and reflected on to help organize your thinking. Let your mind pull as much up from the nonconscious mind as you can handle each day. Stop and decompress whenever you feel overwhelmed.
Step 4 – Recheck what you have worked on. Start by picking apart what has become entwined with your identity. It may be helpful to label, highlight or underline what the event was, what your experience of the event felt like, and its effect(s) in your writing (from step 3). This will be everything that makes you feel bad about yourself—that makes you feel unworthy.
Then, next to the toxic statement you have written and highlighted about yourself, write the opposite. For example, maybe you were told “you will never be good enough for anyone”; change this to “I am good enough—I can do something that no one else can do”. You won’t just believe this at first, but follow this with examples of what you can offer to the world, and as you do this daily for 63 days, slowly “the angel will be release from the block”. Here are some more examples to help you work through this step:
- “You are oversensitive” = I am aware and honor my emotions because they are valid. There is nothing wrong with feeling deeply!
- “You are aggressive” = I am passionate, but I am not always able to channel it correctly. Thankfully, I am learning how to and getting better every day!
- “You always do that” = I have done it in the past but I am now learning what to do and what not to do; my past does not define my future!
- “You are useless” = I am not someone else’s definition of useful. I define what useful is for me.
- “No one will be able to love with your emotional highs and lows” = The right person will love me for who I am and for what I can offer the world.
- “You can’t get anything right” = I embrace mistakes as learning opportunities and choose not to live by anyone else’s standards!
In the recheck step, you should also allow yourself to remember and mourn the loss of who you were before the trauma happened. We all go through hard times and we all change. This is part of being human! Don’t let regret define you. See who you have become since the trauma, and decide broadly who you want to be.
Step 5 – Use Active Reaches to help you rewire your identity and anchor you daily as you rediscover your customized way of thinking and being. Here are some active reaches to help you:
- If your brain changes in response to an experience, then you have the opportunity to deliberately help your brain change again based on the new experiences you create!
- Fill in the gift profile in Think, Learn, Succeed and look at it daily to remind yourself that you are one of a kind!
- See the past as what has happened to you, but only as a tiny part—a small little block that you need to chip away at to find your “David”.
- Get comfortable with your own company—enjoy and appreciate being alone with yourself.
- Think of all the times you have given good advice to someone you care for. What was that advice? Celebrate your wisdom, knowing it is coming from your truth-value!
For more on managing trauma and your identity, listen to my podcast (episode #326), and check out my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and app Neurocycle. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
To learn more about how to manage your mental health and help others, join me at our 7th Annual Mental Health Solutions Retreat, December 2-4, 2021! The core focus of this conference is to give you simple, practical, applicable, scalable, and scientific solutions to help you take back control of your mental health, help others, and make impactful changes in your community. You will also learn how to manage the day-to-day stressors of life as well as those acute stressors that blindside us. Our goal is to address your most pressing mental health concerns, help you find answers, and equip you with the knowledge and resources you need to make the change from a life of barely surviving to one where you are thriving. Register today at drleafconference.com!
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4:42 How trauma affects the mind & body
6:20 How trauma can impact identity
12:40 Our experiences can impact how we see ourselves
16:30 There is something you can do that no one else can do!
17:40 How to use mind management to manage trauma & its impact on identity
20:20 Finding your “David”
22:20 A Neurocycle for identity
30:20 The importance of listening to your warning signals
37:30 How to reconceptualize identity after trauma
39:00 Mourning the loss of who you were
This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.